40 Unanswered Calls Show Us The Grim Reality Of Suicide Helplines In India

40 Unanswered Calls Show Us The Grim Reality Of Suicide Helplines In India
Karan Kumar for Homegrown

Editor’s Note: This article is being updated and republished in the light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has thrown open a slew of mental health concerns for everyone around the world.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently said, “Unless we act now to address the mental health needs associated with the pandemic, there will be enormous long-term consequences for families, communities and societies.” It was deeply upsetting to lose the 34-year-old Bollywood rising star Sushant Singh Rajput to suicide recently. It is, therefore, to be recognised that it’s incumbent upon all of us as a society to build a safe network for people going through difficult times and be prepared to listen and remind them of their strength.

While it’s unfortunate that quite a few of these helplines are still not responsive, since we were personally able to reach the helpline launched by the State Tribal Development Department, Project Mumbai, and Prafulta at 18001024040, we can confirm its operations.

The Fortis helpline at +91-8376804102 also responds. They usually call back within ten minutes if they miss your call.

Here is a crowdfunded list of non-judgmental mental health professionals.

Other recommended social media pages (and websites) dedicated to mental health are@tanvimallyaseldercareservices

@whodoibenow on Instagram is also starting a special crowdfund to support free therapy for people struggling with depression. Find the details here.

It isn’t an easy decision to make in the first place. To find the time or courage to call a helpline and confide in a total stranger. Let them into a part of your mind you’ve been struggling to deal with on your own for a long time. A part you want desperately to extinguish. Yet earlier this year, Dev Malhotra* found himself slowly punching in the numbers of a 24/7 suicide helpline in India called Aasra, a name that featured at the top of his google search. He waited in anticipation as the phone rang — thinking of what exactly he would say once the call was actually received. No matter how much he had scripted his first words, one could never be prepared enough. Yet, it turned out there were worries bigger than this. Worries that could not have been anticipated.

The 29-year-old music producer from Mumbai dialed once, twice, thrice — yet, each time the only response he got was an automated one — telling him to try again later. Shocked, angry and confused he decided to give up on seeking help from a suicide helpline and cope with his feelings himself. However, not everyone is lucky enough to find this strength. For most - calling a suicide helpline is the last resort, probably the last call they will ever make. So what if it goes unanswered?

Our nation is on the teetering edge of a mental health epidemic. As per a recent survey, 60 million Indians suffer from mental illness. For comparative context, that’s a larger number than some countries’ entire population. Anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, eating disorders and depression are just a few of the terms on the spectrum of illnesses that are little acknowledged or even known of by society at large. As many of us have learned the hard way, in India, mental health is a topic riddled with stigma and shame. This is one of the reasons why many people choose to seek help by calling a suicide helpline. Here, they can stay anonymous and talk freely without the fear of being judged. There are several suicide helplines in India, operating around the country, some catering to specific locations, some to specific groups while some cater to everyone, 24/7. Most of these are part of Befrienders Worldwide — a volunteer action group formed to prevent suicide. Their model is seemingly non-gimmicky, secular and is aimed at providing a listening ear. It consists of volunteers who are ordinary people wanting to help someone in need. They are trained in vernacular languages, listening skills and providing basic emotional first aid. Some helplines are part of NGOs that work in the field of Mental Health and suicide prevention whereas some have qualified counsellors with a fixed salary. Very few helplines provide drop-in counselling sessions or appointment based therapies.

Various suicide helplines in India. Image Source: www.thethoughtco.org

But just how efficient are they? Time and again, there have been several instances where these helplines have failed the callers. Numbers not being valid or updated on specific sources, continuously busy lines, no response or even poor quality counselling are all persistent problems that have been voiced by several young Indians on social media platforms. One such grievance is that of 20-year-old Ditsa Bhattacharya from Delhi. She says, “I tried calling Aasra, however, the number did not work and continued to not work for the next 3 months or so. I tried calling another helpline called Sumaitri. It kept saying that the dialled number cannot be reached. I stopped calling after that. I have been very depressed for a while now, and back then, I wasn’t even seeking therapy. My suicidal tendencies were triggered by an extreme amount of sadness. Moreover, I am someone who faces an incredible amount of anxiety during phone calls. I never call someone if I have the choice not to. So, calling the helpline was definitely my last resort,” she says candidly. “The only thing that makes me more anxious than my call being picked up, is my call not being picked up. It made me feel very helpless and frustrated because I had no idea what to do next.”

Recounting a similar experience, 24-year-old Adrian* who has already attempted suicide twice as a teenager couldn’t reach three of the helplines he tried to contact after an emotional breakdown either. “Thankfully for me, a friend came to rescue. I am seeking therapy now and am better but not everyone may be so lucky to have such friends or even access to therapy,” he narrates. Having lost faith in the institution of suicide helplines in India, neither Adrian nor Ditsa tried reaching out to suicide helplines to complain later. However, Dev Malhotra, in an effort to bring Aasara’s inefficiency to their notice, sent a message to them on their Facebook page only to get a response back stating that their ‘lines are always busy and that he had no business telling them what to do.’ Shocked to have known the grim reality of suicide helplines in India, we at Homegrown decided to call these suicide helplines ourselves not just to assess these claims but to understand this form of support mechanism better. The problem, we found, was rooted deeper than what it appeared to be.

Dev's* conversation with Aasra over Facebook

Of the 20 odd suicide helpline numbers that we found online, we were able to connect with only 5 of them. Over the last two months, we called Aasra over 16 times on random days and timings with four different numbers. Yet our calls were either went unreceived or the lines were continuously busy. Similar was the case with Sahai in Bangalore, Sumaitri In Delhi, Lifeline Foundation and the National Institute of Behavioural Sciences in Kolkata who we tried calling four, two, two and three times from three different numbers respectively to find that the numbers were either not available or the calls were not received. We called iCall, a national helpline over 8 times to find the lines busy. Only once our call got through and we were put on hold for the longest time until we finally gave up. We got through Samaritans on our third attempt and the volunteer spoke with me for a good 45 minutes. He was polite and understanding and listened patiently as I spoke to him about my own anxiety issues, providing effective methods for me to deal with it. We encountered a similar experience with Vandrewala Foundation in New Delhi who got through on the first ring. From asking me what went wrong to suggesting what to do about it, the man over the phone was kind and persuasive too. Our call to Banyan in Chennai also got through, yet it yielded no fruit, for they simply asked me to go to a psychiatrist or the nearest hospital but also asked me if they should send cops or any help to my place. Parivarthan, in Bangalore, who we called thrice, had an answering machine that would record our messages, and Snehi’s number was invalid. It was later when we called their office that we found out the line had been temporarily disconnected for a week due to server errors. Earlier, last year, the Quint too investigated the state of some of India’s top suicide prevention hotlines, by calling them up on camera. Their report stated that “Only three of 10-11 calls were received by someone on the other end, of which one refused to believe one could be bullied for being fat, another didn’t quite understand the why behind symptoms of depression, while the third volunteer did actually check all of the boxes a suicide hotline should.”

An anonymous user's grievance on Quora.

However, it would be myopic and aggressive on our part or for anyone to blame suicide helplines entirely. The problems here need to be examined in the larger socio-political context. Our country is the new Suicide Capital of Southeast Asia (as was declared by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2012 ), yet the topic is so stigmatized here, that there are no funds allotted to it’s prevention. This is exactly what has been crippling the suicide helplines of our country – lack of funds, staff and resources to be able to function efficiently. Founder and Director of Aasra, Jonathan Thomson confirms the same. Speaking to Homegrown about this, he states, “At a time, we have 36 volunteers engaged in almost 250 calls that we receive everyday. Though we regret not being able to cater to everyone, it is practically impossible to do so. The demand for the service is much higher than we could possibly attend to. We would be happy to get in more volunteers, but that would require us to expand our space, resources for training, telephone lines etc., which is difficult as we are limited by funds that are invariably limiting our operational efficiency. There are also so many infrastructural and technical issues with helplines in our country which is so many calls don’t get through. We are trying our best.”

His thoughts resonate with Abdul Mabood, director of SNEHI, a suicide helpline for youngsters for exam-related anxiety and an NGO that has been working in the field of advocacy, capacity building and spreading awareness on Mental Health in India. According to him, funding for SNEHI has especially been difficult in the last 4 years, after Modi came to power. “Earlier we got funding from PSU’s but now this money has been shifted elsewhere. It is very easy for the media to help us but we are doing the most we can through our limited resources, functioning even after hours through call forwarding systems. We need to provide each caller at least 45-60 minutes each. To be able to cater a mass, we can’t cut down on the quality of counselling, especially when a person is suicidal. It is a huge responsibility and we would love to take up more of it if the government provides us with some support,” he states. SNEHI had been one of the key players in getting the Mental Health Bill passed in 1987 in India and have worked closely with government officials. They see a little hope there and think that the way forward is more NGOs operating on donations, crowd-funding and CSR activities.

However, Paras Sharma, a practising psychologist from Bangalore and a former head of the Icall helpline disagrees. He feels that CSRs tend to put in their money only where the development is seemingly visible. “Most of them are superficial. They don’t even see mental health as a chronic problem,” he insists. “Moreover, if a suicide, though now decriminalised is committed, a lot of legalities also comes into the picture, which is why CSR’s tend to stay away from it. Our way ahead is by galvanizing and sensitizing the government about mental health. They are the one with the power and resources,” he explains stating how due to therapy being expensive in India may not be accessible to everyone, thus these helplines are the quickest and the cheapest way to seek help. “Most of the times, all lines are occupied simultaneously. There are almost 3000-4000 people calling these helplines each month. Helplines are functioning purely out of the need to help people. They are not making any money out of it. Thus, they do not have any reason to fool people,” he adds.

A glance at suicide rate in our country. Image source: NCRB

The inefficiency of suicide helplines in the country is clearly a reflection of the government’s apathy towards mental health. It is apparent from the fact that just four states in the country seem to have running state government suicide helplines. Thus, the need of the hour is to rectify this problem from a grass root level. The National Mental Health Policy of 2014 is one step forward towards that. But clearly, more needs to be done. Having mental health classes in schools, training people to give basic emotional first-aid and acknowledging mental health as an actual, genuine issue is where we need to begin at, so authorities and institutes with actual resources are convinced to join in. A good example of this is the Vandrewala Foundation. Perhaps the reason that it picked up the call and provided a great service may have to do with the fact it is owned by Hiranandani Foundation and receives ample resources to train and pay its ample counsellors. Apart from helplines that several support groups —both online and offline are also doing their bit. What we need to do is to be patient and just reach out to as many people and institutions we can — to give help or to seek help. The beginning of a happier life may just be a conversation away.

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

Feature Illustration by Karan Kumar.

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